But as major newspapers, TV networks and radio stations have been gobbled up by mega-corporations like Gannett Co., General Electric and Westinghouse, the media's role has changed. Reporters and editors no longer are responsible to the public and, ultimately, to the truth -- they report to boards of directors and shareholders.
The mainstream media have become the corporate machines they used to watchdog. They are the comfortable.
So it's no surprise that, in order to remain comfortable -- and maintain a comfortable bottom line -- corporate journalism occasionally produces terrible situations like ABC News refusing to air a story critical of hiring practices at Disney World, owned by its parent company, and like The Cincinnati Enquirer's capitulation to Chiquita Brands International Inc. over reporter Michael Gallagher's voice mail thefts. Rather than stand behind a thorough trashing of local business icon Carl Lindner and his banana empire -- much of which had no connection to the stolen voice mails -- the paper's parent company, Gannett, renounced the stories and paid Chiquita in excess of $10 million.
Gallagher pleaded guilty to two felony counts in September and agreed to help local prosecutors investigate his confidential Chiquita sources. Enquirer Editor Larry Beaupre moved to an unspecified position at Gannett corporate headquarters in November. The series' other reporter, Cameron McWhirter, joined Gannett's Detroit News in early January.
All of which left The Enquirer without its star investigative reporters and without an editor for two months -- while newsroom morale and the paper's reputation raced each other to rock bottom.
Into the breach steps Ward Bushee, named Enquirer editor and vice president on Jan. 14.
Editor of Gannett's Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal since 1990, he faces a daunting task: A number of experienced reporters have left The Enquirer since the settlement with Chiquita was announced in late June; the remaining newsroom staff still is in the dark -- as are the rest of us -- about the internal breakdowns that let Gallagher's voice mail misdeeds go unnoticed; and Bushee must rebuild the paper's will and drive to do investigative journalism.
Gannett's "Editor of the Year" in both 1992 and 1996, Bushee has impressive credentials. And he had a close, positive relationship with his staff in Reno -- a quality that will help him repair some of the lingering mistrust Enquirer staffers have over Chiquita.
"He was pretty well-liked and respected at the paper, and in Reno," says Larry Henry, editor of the Reno News & Review, the city's alternative newsweekly. "He's a respected newspaperman."
But Henry also calls Bushee a "loyal Gannett troop" -- Bushee has worked for Gannett since 1977 -- who does not rock the boat.
"It's obvious that The Enquirer has been neutered by the Chiquita settlement," Henry says. "One way to address that is to hire a kick-ass journalist to show the paper has the guts to do investigative work again. Bushee might not be that guy. He won't turn over the rocks."
In fact, Bushee's community work in Reno is praised as often as his journalism endeavors. An article in the Gazette-Journal announcing his departure touted his leadership role in a 1998 community project called Champions of the River, which resulted in the construction of a park next to the paper's office building.
"Ward did extraordinarily good work at the newspaper," Gazette-Journal Publisher Sue Clark-Johnson was quoted saying in the article. "And he did significant work in the community."
Phil Currie, senior vice president for Gannett's newspaper division, was quoted in a Jan. 14 Enquirer article saying Bushee "is a strong editor ... who has been very good with his people and very good with the community."
A good example of Bushee's community involvement, News & Review's Henry says, is the recent successful attempt by Reno's biggest industry, gambling, to enact a sales tax increase to benefit the city's casinos -- an attempt the Gazette-Journal endorsed.
The paper's editorial stance might have had something to do with Clark-Johnson's controversial position on the board of directors of Harrah's, one of Reno's big casino companies. Criticized by national journalism publications for her role as a paid director for one of the city's largest corporations, the Gazette-Journal publisher consistently has denied a conflict of interest.
Back in mid-1998, the Washoe County Commission was considering a quarter-cent increase in the county sales tax for several capital projects -- half of which would go to helping reroute a major rail line running through downtown Reno. The tracks ran next to several big casinos, whose guests apparently were complaining about being awakened by trains roaring through town overnight.
So instead of paying for the project themselves, the casinos and the railroad asked the public to foot the bill. The commissioners had the option of either raising the sales tax or putting it on the November ballot for voters to decide but did neither.
Then two commissioners were upset in the November elections by anti-tax opponents. But instead of getting the public's message in their defeat, the two commissioners -- who didn't leave office until January -- voted to pass the tax hike in December.
The Gazette-Journal's editorial board, which Bushee oversees, praised the lame-duck commissioners for their positive work on behalf of the community. The News & Review called the move "corrupt."
The question that arose out of Clark-Johnson's role with Harrah's -- whether she would influence her paper's editorial coverage of a company she works for -- only increased when the Gazette-Journal backed the sales tax hike, says the News & Review's Henry.
"Under Bushee, the Gazette-Journal has been a strong paper," Henry says. "But it could have been more of a watchdog. How much of that was due to the publisher? I guess you'll see in Cincinnati."